by Dr Dave Smith - Blacklist Support Group
The post below is edited extracts taken from my PhD thesis (can be read here), published in June 2020. Posting them now acts as a contribution to the debate about the model of trade unionism in the UK construction industry, and is also a reminder of why the independent investigation into union collusion in blacklisting is so important.
In standard trade union terminology, a convenor is the most senior union representative in a particular workplace, usually elected directly by the members or through a vote at the shop-stewards committee. In construction, this is often no longer the case. Under the guise of working in partnership, construction unions and employers have agreed a role for union appointed convenors site who are integrated into the safety apparatus of major contractors.
According to two academics, (Wright & Brown 2013), key elements of the role involve a lead position on safety issues, including carrying out regular safety inspections and site inductions for new staff, helping to resolve individual grievances, checking workers’ qualifications and legal right to work in the UK. Either the client or main contractor pay the convenor’s salary, often in an apparent twin role of senior safety advisor on the project, plus holding the position of trade union convener. The appointed convenors do not come from amongst the workers on the site but from a tiny cohort of full-time convenors who travel from one project to another.
Wright and Brown (2013:21) interviewed union officials about the appointed convenor system, one UCATT regional secretary explained:
“We make the case to the [lead firm] that the convenor will help to reduce the risks and costs associated with problems arising and blowing up”
Another UCATT official described the convenors as “employment relations problem solvers” explaining that “we have to show the client how the convenors will add value, because otherwise they won't be interested” (Wright & Brown 2013:31)
The wage cost for an appointed convenor, whose stated aim is to stop employment relations problems escalating, is insignificant compared to a stoppage on an infrastructure project. The appointed convenor system is the logical extension of the servicing model and partnership approach to union renewal. Major contractors with a history of hostility to organised labour are paying for appointed convenors in order to reduce the likelihood of industrial action on their projects. It is a twin track approach: appointed convenors are the carrot, blacklisting is the stick.
In fact, many of the senior company executives personally responsible for the blacklisting of union activists were amongst the most vocal in their support of the appointed convener system. Stephen Quant, former Skanska director and chairman of the Consulting Association blacklist claimed that he had a close relationship with two UCATT regional secretaries (both later to become national officers) and it became company policy to employ union appointed convenors on all major sites during his tenure. Quant claimed the final decision as to who would be appointed was decided after he had interviewed different candidates,
“It has always been an appointment. I’d just say to [regional secretary], ‘I would like a convenor steward on this site’ and they would pop up a couple of people for me to have a chat with and I would pick one. I would meet them in the office on a formal basis. It was all recorded because I have got to offer them employment”.
Even for elected convenors, there is a danger that they can be raised to an elevated position and lose touch with the workers they represent. Yet, however much senior lay union representatives may become incorporated into an employer’s industrial relations apparatus, in most industries they are initially elected by their fellow union members at the workplace. They can therefore ultimately be deselected and are consequently required to respond to collective pressure from below. For appointed convenors, the decision whether to select or deselect them lies with the union hierarchy and the employer (or the client), assumedly with the same pressures to respond.
Without any real democratic input from the workers on site, the union is virtually acting as a paid consultancy, providing the employers with an external expert to sort out the workers’ individual employment and safety problems. While appointed convenors may benefit the union machinery and provide assistance to workers with individual grievances, activists were sceptical about the prospects of building any shared response to collective issues, their criticism being about the role rather than the individual in the position. Bricklayer E was particularly pessimistic about the role of appointed conveners:
“I’m quite depressed by how incorporated into the corporate structure that UCATT has become. They have been paralysed, look how weak it is and they have allowed themselves to get like that. A convenor, in their most optimistic dreams, recruits large numbers of the workforce and then stabilises the finances of the union by working in partnership. They’re not elected. There’s very little space where union members can get involved, to become a safety rep or any meaningful solidarity. I’ve heard some of these convenors talking about the union providing some peace of mind. Seeing it as a sort of insurance policy, where people get union representation for an accident, but they have no idea of a union being something progressive that could change the way of life for working people”.
There are of course exceptions to the general rule. On Heathrow Terminal 5, the Amicus ‘designated reps’ ensured that they were endorsed by holding an on site election and subsequently used their position to organise collective action. This included a boycott of the site canteen over food pricing, plus action over excessive unpaid travelling time from the site entrance to the place of work and new contracts. The consequence was that once T5 finished, rather than being transferred to another convenor’s position as was tradition, both activists were blacklisted and suffered long periods of unemployment.
Druker & White’s (2013) study of industrial relations on the London Olympics identifies that while there were five appointed union conveners on separate contracts across the entire project, there were only three additional unions reps elected across the entire life of the mega construction project. The result was that although full-time officials and appointed conveners attended occasional forums with the main contractor, there was no functioning stewards committee at any time during the six year project, which is in stark contrast to the ‘vibrant’ union organisation during Sydney Olympics.
A possible reason for the lack of genuine union organisation was provided when company directors of the contractors that built the Olympic stadia later admitted to the select committee investigation that the Consulting Association blacklist was used to vet workers applying for work on the Olympics. This explanation however is disputed by one of the union officials from the project who is quoted as describing blacklisting as, “one of the myths of the site” (Druker & White 2013). Quite why a union official would be more sceptical about blacklisting than the construction companies that actually carried it out is an interesting question in itself.
In return for ensuring that workplace grievances do not escalate into industrial action, the very same employers responsible for blacklisting granted union’s bulk membership agreements and a union presence on major projects. Given the nature of employment relations in the sector, the biggest potential threat of industrial action which causes the employers residual fear comes from rank and file activism.
The partnership model and union organising are fundamentally contradictory approaches. Far from being complementary aspects of a multi-faceted approach, their basic assumptions, aims and methodology are in opposition to each other. This thesis suggests that it is impossible for both strategies to run simultaneously against the same employer. Union organising and attempts at collective mobilisation undermine the efforts of those wishing to work in partnership with employers, and vice versa. The two strategies together would either cancel each other out, or more likely the dominant strategy would extinguish the likelihood of the other taking hold. A top-down pro-business partnership strategy that involves appointed convenors is diametrically opposed to a bottom up rank and file organising model in which unofficial industrial action is a major constituent.
Fundamental disagreement between rank and file activists in UNITE and the layer of appointed conveners from UCATT has been one of the major sources of internal conflict since the two unions merged. One activist, described the dispute as a ‘battle for the future direction of trade unionism in the construction industry’.
2. Union sources named on blacklist files
• Reported by local EETPU official as militant
• AEEU describes as f. evil as far as internal union dealings are concerned. Active at branch level
• DO NOT DIVULGE - Above information arose from liaison between union, contractor and managing agent at J/L [this appears on dozens of files from the Jubilee Line]
• Information received by site manager at Heathrow T5 that the above is ‘not recommended’ by Amicus.
• Above is to be a delegate at UCATT Conference [union official] further commented ‘but people don’t take any notice of him now’
• Above information came from amicus
• EETPU says NO
The entries above are just a selection from where union sources are recorded on blacklist files. Many of the documents seized by the ICO when they raided the Consulting Association do not simply name the union who provided the information, they name individual union officials as the source of the information. These include regional secretaries, national officers from various unions and 3 General Secretaries.
‘EETPU says NO’ appears on numerous files and during the select committee investigation into blacklisting, Ian Davidson MP asked Ian Kerr whether this suggested input from a trade union. TCA’s Chief Executive agreed:
“That would have been the case. It would have been a particular relationship with an HR manager in a particular area and that regional officer of the union. I don’t know how you want to phrase it, but somewhere along the line that would have been discussed and somebody would have decided that that was information that we should have in our system.… The poor union official had to resolve the two sides. Sometimes he didn’t want an unnecessary problem, nor did his union."
FOI requests made by activists to various blacklisting firms as late as 2018, reveal email exchanges between union officials and industrial relations officers discussing prominent union members. The FOI requests identified that emails sent by activists to union officials discussing preparations for industrial action were forwarded to Costain in May 2015 and after 2016 internal minutes of national and regional construction committees within UNITE were circulated to senior managers and industrial relations consultants working for Skanska.
Several industrial relations officers claim that sometimes information was deliberately passed to them with the intention of keeping activists off projects. Dudley Barrett, head of industrial relations for Costain from 1984-1995 claims that union officials knew about the blacklist, adding that he had ‘good friends’ in the unions,
“who would occasionally tell me names of individuals who they thought should not be employed on sites... Overall, I gained the impression that there was a quiet acceptance by certain construction trade unions of the Services Group / Consulting Association and the ‘benefits’ of the checking service as such individuals could be disruptive of organised labour”.
A similar practice was also confirmed by Daniel O’Sullivan from Kier, who claims that because they were keen to prevent disruption on site: “Occasionally, union officials would give me information concerning a particular individual”. In the late 1980s, senior union officers even went as far as attending events organised by the Economic League. Trevor Watcham, TCA chairman between 2003-2005 recalls how at one such lunchtime event he sat on the same table as, “Leon Brittan of the Conservative Party (who had been the main speaker) and Eric Hammond of the electricians’ union together with some members of his union executive”.
In 1988, during Hammond’s tenure at the EETPU, the electricians’ union was expelled from the TUC due to single union deals, poaching of members and openly siding with employers such as during the News International dispute at Wapping. Many of the more left-wing activists broke away from EETPU setting up the EPIU, this led to a bitter inter-union battle over many years and information on some blacklist files identifying EPIU activists appears to originate from EETPU sources. This animosity was confirmed by a number of the interviewees, including Official C who accepted that “It was civil war between AEEU and EPIU… the employers obviously supported the EETPU and AEEU because they were business friendly”.
Investigation of the primary source data seems to suggest that in most cases the information on blacklist files attributed to union sources was not provided intentionally but was gathered by industrial relations officers during the normal course of formal and informal meetings with officials. However, there is corroborated evidence of fraternization outside of usual working hours that would go beyond acceptable behaviour in many public authorities. This is common knowledge amongst activists who view the practice with extreme disdain, which only adds to their general sense of mistrust of many union officials.
When placed in context alongside oral evidence from blacklisted activists and senior industrial relations officers, the documentary evidence from blacklist files and FOI disclosures suggest that on some occasions the proliferation of information may have been more premeditated.
There is a well worn path between officials leaving employment with a trade union and the very next day taking up a position as an industrial relations manager or consultant for a major contractor. On some occasions jumping sides of the negotiating table mid-way through a prolonged dispute. Whenever a new example of this occurs, it only helps to increase the general sense of suspicion amongst a section of activists about possible collusion by union officials in blacklisting their own members.
This is why the independent QC led investigation into potential union collusion in blacklisting must be allowed to fully complete its task. And if any officials are criticised in the final written report, relevant disciplinary action should be taken.
3. Rank and file union organising
In contrast to the top down business friendly approach, the building site based activist layer developed an alternative approach founded on rank and file militancy. The itinerant nature of the work and lack of direct employment status means that the full balloting procedure for industrial action is all but irrelevant in construction. Therefore, instead of being organised through the official union structures, the key support network for activists was more likely to be ad-hoc rank and file groups, which re-emerge in every generation. Within UK construction, rank and file unofficial militancy has already achieved significant success on an industry wide basis, especially notable in the 1972 national building workers strike, during the late 1990s and the 2012 BESNA dispute [and the ESO action in 2021].
Locating transformative change as primarily a function of national union leaders shifts the focus of attention onto internal union structures and processes and away from the workplace. Instead, this thesis suggests that union renewal in the UK is dependent upon fostering organic rank and file organising, wherever it springs up.
Workers going from one insecure job to another with little in the way of employment rights and facing hostility from anti-union employers is not a particularly new phenomenon: it could easily be an account of employment relations throughout the nineteenth century. Yet within a few months in 1888, the TGWU became the most powerful union in the world by mass mobilisation of precarious workers. The experiences of the blacklisted activists may set them aside from the majority of union reps in TUC affiliated trade unions in 2019. But in the era of neo-liberal attacks on organised labour, this thesis suggests that an understanding of the construction activists’ rank and file model of union organising may be of value to a labour movement audience beyond academia.
Edited extracts taken from: